A series of recent developments point to Hamas’s increasingly solid position in the Palestinian and broader Arab political constellations. This process is of significance both for Arab politics itself, and for the likely direction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the coming period.
In the past week, it was announced that Jordan’s Intelligence Department, led by Gen. Muhammad Dahabi, has opened a dialogue with Hamas. The renewal of contacts between Amman and Hamas reverses a decade of Jordanian policy since the Hamas leadership were expelled from Jordan in 1999.
The fraught nature of Jordan’s relations with Hamas was compounded in April 2006 with the arrest of 20 men suspected of being Hamas operatives. Three of the detainees were charged with maintaining a Hamas cell that surveyed Israeli targets in the kingdom in order to carry out terror attacks. The three were convicted two months ago.
Analysts are assuming that Amman is hoping to secure guarantees from Hamas against the movement’s planning further operations against Israel from Jordanian soil. Jordan is also understood to fear the possible ramifications for its internal affairs of Hamas’s election victory in January 2006 and its subsequent consolidation of power. In this regard, it should be noted that the main Jordanian opposition movement – the Islamic Action Front – is Hamas’s sister Muslim Brotherhood front organization east of the Jordan River. The Front is regarded as the most popular political movement in Jordan, and it is currently led by an individual with close ties to Hamas – Sheikh Zaki Bani Irsheid.
For Hamas, of course, the Jordanian move is welcome toward dialogue, since it seems to represent the gradual acceptance by the Arab political mainstream of its growing power among the Palestinians. This acceptance derives not from ideological factors or sentiment: pragmatic, pro-Western, monarchical Jordan and Islamist Hamas with its links to Iran could not be more natural adversaries. Rather, the move points to a de facto acceptance of the fact that Hamas’s rivals in the Palestinian camp are too weak to dislodge it, and that no one else seems keen to take on this task.
In Gaza, Hamas has created a functioning Sunni Islamist enclave. Recent moves to ban Ramallah-produced Fatah literature and to round up remaining mid-level Fatah activists were further confirmation of this. The movement is also quietly maintaining its strength in the West Bank. This is despite attempts by Mahmoud Abbas’s forces to hit at Hamas’s extensive social welfare structure – the basis of its long-term support. Should a large number of Hamas political prisoners be freed in a deal for the release of St.-Sgt. Gilad Schalit, this is expected to further contribute to Hamas attempts to maintain and build its position in the West Bank.
Gaza, though armed to the teeth, is poverty stricken, and Hamas functionaries are proving by no means immune to corruption and nepotism. The situation in the Strip is hardly a shining advertisement for Palestinian Islamism. But in the simple, zero sum terms of Middle East power-brokering, there is no force currently both willing and able to deprive the movement of power. Jordan is therefore adjusting to accommodate to the facts on the ground.
The Jordanian move is reflected elsewhere. Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai over the weekend – ostensibly as a goodwill gesture in the approach to Ramadan – may also be seen as an acknowledgment by Cairo that Hamas’s de facto power is not about to disappear.
The reverse side of Jordanian and Egyptian adjustment to new realities on the ground is the sense of the continued decline into irrelevance of Fatah and the West Bank Palestinian Authority. The Jordanians, from up close, observe the failure of the PA leadership to carry through on its promises to isolate Hamas in the West Bank. They observe with dismay the continued disarray, disunity and lack of direction within Fatah. From this point of view, the desire of the US administration and the Olmert government in their final months to attempt to reach an agreement of some kind with the Abbas administration seems detached from reality.
The cautious engagement of Jordan and Egypt with Hamas is of a piece with broader current developments in the neighborhood. The arrival of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France in Syria this week to formalize renewed ties between Paris and Damascus after three years of tension may be seen as part of the same process. There are even rumors going around that Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit met with Hizbullah representatives during a recent visit to Beirut.
From Israel’s point of view, these events signal the growing power of elements hostile to it to the north, south and east. However, they also signal an acknowledgment by regional powers of the stark realities on the ground – in contrast to the dance of the “peace process” still being performed by fading administrations in Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The old view of a closed Israeli-Palestinian system west of the Jordan is fading. Rather, Israel, Jordan and Egypt, each in their own way, are grappling with the shared reality of well-entrenched, hostile Islamist forces in their midst. Developing a coherent policy response to this reality will be a pressing task awaiting the new US and Israeli administrations expected to assume power in the first part of next year.